GETTING READY FOR THE 1950 CENSUS:
Searching With and Without a Name Index
Stephen P. Morse and Joel D. Weintraub
This article was written October 2019
This article is based on a similar article for the 1940 census that appeared in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (December 2011).
The US census has been taken every ten years starting in 1790. Since 1942, all censuses have been made available to the public 72 years after the census was taken (73 years in the case of the 1900 census). As of this writing (October 2019), the last census that has been made available is the 1940 census.
When the 1950 census is released in April 2022, it will not have a name index. So finding people in the census will involve searching by location instead. Even when a name index becomes available, there will still be many reasons for doing locational searches.
The census is organized by Enumeration Districts (EDs), so the location needs to be converted to an ED before the census can be accessed. The One-Step website (https://stevemorse.org) contains numerous tools for obtaining EDs. This paper will present the various tools and show circumstances in which each can be used.
Note that there are several parts (called schedules) of the census. There is the population schedule, the housing schedule, the agricultural schedule, etc. Unless noted otherwise, the term census used in this paper refers to the population schedule.
The 72-year Rule, Fact and Fiction
The census is sealed for 72 years because of life expectancy. That statement, although widely believed, is not true. We need to look at the history of the census to find out why the 72-year rule exists.
From 1790 to 1870 each census was made available immediately after it was taken. One copy of the census was typically sent to the Washington for archival purposes. A second copy was typically sent to the various local courthouses for all to see. Of course all they could see was the census for that local area. In order to see the census for the entire country they would have to travel from courthouse to courthouse.
From 1880 to 1940 there was only one copy of each census and it was sent to the Census Bureau and was kept closed to the public. Statistical data about the census was released to the general public, but not the information about individual people in the census.
In 1934 the National Archives was formed, and in 1942 the Census Bureau transferred most of the census records to the National Archives. The National Archives decided to open all censuses up to and including 1870. This established a de facto 72-year rule.
In 1952 the Census Bureau transferred the 1950 census to the National Archives under the condition that all censuses remained sealed for 72 years. With that agreement, the 1880 census was released and the 72-year rule was now well established.
One exception was the 1900 census, which was sealed for 73 years. There were privacy concerns raised in 1970 during the enumeration of the 1970 census, and that caused the Census Bureau to reverse its decision about releasing the census pages. As a result, the National Archives held up the release of the 1900 census, scheduled for 1972, until they received a ruling from the U.S. Attorney General. A compromise was reached in 1973 and the 1900 census was then opened.
Opening Day for the 1950 Census
The census day for the 1950 census was April 1, 1950. That doesn’t mean that the census taker knocked on the door on April 1 and took down the information. He might have come anytime during the month of April. But the questions he asked pertained to April 1. Uncle Sam wanted to get a snapshot of the nation as it existed on April 1. Since the census is sealed for 72 years, opening day for the 1950 census will be April 1, 2022.
Prior to the 1940 census, the release of each census involved making microfilm copies of the master census microfilms (the original census pages have long since been destroyed). These microfilm copies were then made available to various archives and libraries. It was from these microfilm copies that several companies and organizations scanned the census images and placed them online.
That was not the case for the 1940 census. Instead scans of the 1940 microfilms were put directly online, making it available to anyone with Internet access on opening day. Furthermore it was accessible to all for free. It is anticipated that the same will be true for the 1950 census.
But a complete name index for the 1950 census will not exist until at least six months (best guess at this time) after opening day. That means that the only way to access the 1950 census initially will be by location. However the 1950 census is not organized by address but rather by the Enumeration District. To access the census, we need to obtain the Enumeration Districts of our desired locations.
An Enumeration District (ED) is an area that can be canvassed by a single census taker (enumerator) in a census period. Since 1880, all information in the census is arranged by ED. If we do not know the ED, we cannot access the census by location!
Each ED within a state has a unique number. Starting in 1930, the number consists of two parts, such as 31-1518. The first part is a prefix number assigned to each county (usually alphabetical) and the second part is a district number within the county. Starting in 1940 the large cities were given their own prefix number. Such city prefix numbers come after the last county prefix and the cities are in alphabetical order. A large city in 1940 was a city with a population of 100,000 or more. In 1950 it was 50,000 or more.
As an example, the number of counties in California is currently 58, and has been so since 1907. The county prefixes go from 1 (Alameda County) to 58 (Yuba County). And those were the only prefixes in 1930. In 1940 the following four cities were given their own prefixes: Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego. In 1950 another 13 cities were elevated to having their own prefix. This is illustrated in the chart below. For brevity, not all counties are included in this chart. A red entry in the chart indicates a city with its own prefix.
To read this chart, note that Los Angeles County is somewhere in the middle of the county list and has a prefix of 19. Long Beach City is in Los Angeles County, so in 1930 it too had prefix 19. But in 1940 it was given its own prefix, namely 59. And in 1950 its prefix became 65 due to the addition of more cities with their own prefix.
Now that we know what an ED is, we need to know how to obtain the ED of the locations we are interested in.
Before we can determine the family’s ED, we have to know where they were located. If we don’t already have their address, here are several ways of finding it.
An old family address book might list the addresses not only of the family but of family friends as well.
Often vital records give the address at which the family resided. A birth certificate might list the residence of the mother. If the birth was a home birth, the certificate would list the family’s residence as the location of the birth. A marriage license would usually list the address of both the bride and the groom. And a death certificate would give the last address of the deceased.
City directories are like phone books but without the phone numbers, and are a good source of addresses. They exist for many cities. Of course phone books themselves are another good source.
Old diaries might list family addresses.
Employment records for members of the family will certainly have addresses on them.
If the family saved some old letters that they’ve received, that would of course have the family’s address on it.
If the family was mentioned in the local newspaper or in a local book, it might give the family’s address.
A person’s naturalization record would list where the person was living.
A photograph might have an address written on the back. If it is a picture of the front of the house the family lived in, it might show the house number. And the picture might show the street sign in the distance.
Some of the older relatives of the family might recall where the family lived, or they might have some of the documents mentioned here that can help determine where they lived.
Such records will most likely include an address.
Old scrapbooks are certainly a good source of obtaining the family’s address.
There’s a good chance that some of the family members applied for social security cards in the years around 1950, and those application would list the address.
World War II registrations occurred in the 1940s, so the address listed on the registration might be the address that the family lived at in 1950.
Example 1: Finding Donald Duck in the 1950 Census
The largest collection of tools for converting location information to ED is found on the One-Step website (http://stevemorse.org). And they are all free. The main tool is the One-Step Unified ED Finder. That tool consolidates the functions of many of the other tools and in most cases is the only tool needed.
Let's illustrate the use of the Unified ED Finder by looking for Donald Duck in the 1950 census. We will need to know Donald's address before we can proceed further. We already saw the various places that we can look to obtain the address, and one of them was "Local Newspapers / Books." Well for Donald there are lots of books – comic books that is. And in the March 1954 issue of “Uncle Scrooge” is a story titled “Secrets of Atlantis.” That story shows Donald going to his house at 1313 Webfoot Walk in Duckburg Calisota. If Donald didn’t move around too often, there’s a good chance he was at that address in 1950.
So Donald had the mystical house number of 1313. He was in good company, sharing that house number with none other than the Munsters at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, the new Addams family at 1313 Cemetery Lane, the Life of Riley at 1313 Blueview Terrace, and, most importantly, one of the authors of this paper (and that’s not a joke).
Note above that we cited our source for obtaining Donald’s address. It is important to do so when obtaining genealogical information so that others can check on our work and make sure that we didn’t overlook anything.
Next we go to the Unified ED Finder and select the year (1950) and the state (Calisota). That’s a fictional Disney state of course, and is a cross between California and Minnesota. After selecting Calisota, a list of some of the large cities in Calisota appears. Duckburg was indeed a large city according to Wikipedia, which at one time reported it as having a population of 300,000. Of course most of the populace were anthropomorphized animals. So Duckburg is on the list, and we will select it.
Upon selecting Duckburg, a list of the streets in Duckburg appears. We select Webfoot Walk. At this point a list of EDs appears – these are the EDs that Webfoot Walk passes through. And the instructions say to select a cross street in order to narrow down the list of potential EDs. A map of Duckburg shows that 1313 Webfoot Walk is at the corner of Webfoot and Quack. So we select Quack Street, and the list of EDs is reduced to just one – namely 62-2.
Now that we have the ED, we are ready to view the census images for that district. After April 1, 2022 there will be a One-Step Census Image tool that will let us do that of course! We would start at the first page of the ED and look at the left margin for Webfoot Walk. We keep going, page by page, until we find it. We then look in the next column for 1313. When we find that, we will have Donald’s census record.
The 1950 census has not yet been made public, so I shouldn’t be showing you any of the information that is in it. But it seems innocent enough for me to show you Donald’s record, although I must ask you not to tell anyone that I’ve shown it to you. Here it is: